Sunday, 14 September 2008

A Commentary upon John 1:1

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

Or, in Luther's phrasing, which is in fact the phrasing of the original Greek (ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος), "Im Anfang war das Wort, und das Wort war bei Gott, und Gott war das Wort."

I have often asked myself if there is, in actuality, a God. I told my fiance that my problem was that I only believed half of the Shahaddah; I believed Mohammed was the Prophet, but I wasn't sure that there was an Allah for him to be the prophet of. By this I meant simply that I believe in principles which I found the Koran to embody, but wasn't wholly willing to attribute them to a personal creator deity. Of the existence of these principles, however, I have never doubted. Truth, beauty, goodness--these are constant. Nothing which lacks one can possess either of the others. They would exist even if nothing else did. If nothing existed, it would still be true that nothing existed; this fact, by virtue of its being true, would be beautiful, and therefore good. Yes, in these principles my belief had always been unshaken.

So we return to John, and we recall that John was, whoever he was, probably writing between the years 90 and 100. The expulsion of the Christians from the synagogues is already a theme in his work, and he is expecting a substantially Greek, if not mostly Greek, audience. The Greeks, of course, came from a vey different spiritual background than the Jews. The Greeks turned to their philosophers, rather than their priests, for answers to questions about the origins of the world and the meaning of life, and many were devotees after some fashion of the Prime Mover of Aristotle's works, or the One mentioned by Plato. These were remote, non-personal concepts of divinity, without personality or interest in human affairs, and the anthropomorphisized Yahweh likely seemed ridiculous to many. (See Karen Armstrong's "A History of God" for an excellent discussion of this.) John foresses that objection, and heads it off at the pass. "God was the Word" he says, but of course not saying 'word' but rather 'logos'.

Logos is a complex word, carrying in ancient Greek the basic meaning of something said, but secondary meanings also of reason and intelligence. Aristotle used it in discussing rhetoric as one of the techniques of persuasion, specifically the one that demonstrated a claim from facts--the truth. It had a long history in the hands of Heraclitus and the Stoics also, referring to the essential animating principles of the universe. The fact that some Chinese translations use 道 'tao' sheds some light on this understanding. John wrote that verse for me. He wrote it for all of us who, raised in the traditions of Western thought, greet with a disbelieving smirk tales of divine personalities who stoop to notice the little things we do. John wanted us to understand that we should not take the story he was about to tell as a simplistic fairy tale about a man living on a cloud with a big, white beard. Rather, we should understand that the anthropomorphisms of the Jewish tradition were simply his culture's way of expressing what we are used to thinking of as abstract principles after the Platonic fashion.

Many of us today have trouble believing in God because we just don't feel that there is somebody looking over our shoulder. But if we read the prophets, or the Gospels, or the Koran again carefully, and we take John's advice, we will find that we can readily substitute 'Word' for 'God' and do no violence to their poetry--or their wisdom. I don't believe in the God of most evangelical American preachers, or the Taliban, or even those harmless folks who pray that God will balance their cheque book or bring them a new tricycle for Christmas. I do believe, however, like John, in the Word. And there is no God but the Word.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Reflections on my Beloved's Absence

There once was a woman who was beloved of each one she met, and who brought joy to every one blessed enough to be the recipient of her smile. She moved with an easy grace amongst men, and played muse to their delirious dreams. Each sought to conquer her, and yet all ended conquered. In our cascading procession we presented ourselves as suitors one after another, like the unfolding feathers of a peacock's tail. We invented games for her amusement and arts for her diversion, and crafted all the sciences that we might impress ourselves upon her mind. There was not one of us but tried to demonstrate his superiority in trials of strength or wit, and in this way there was not one of us but became the best iteration of himself for her sake.

Yet at the same time, what fools we were! Such shameless poets' coquettry, such hamfisted boasting was our chosen medium. Never did men seem smaller than they did beside her, their fine accomplishments as candles beside her blazing lantern. When she sang it was the beauty of the forest's silence, and her dancing sent shivers through the spine of the earth. Grown men buckled at the knees under her gaze, as though the shimmer in her eyes might vaporize them. The few who dared to meet even her glances were driven mad, if indeed it were possible for us to be any madder.

But oh what sweet madness! Those who have never felt reason as an oppressor, those who have never known rationality as a simulacrum of death cannot comprehend it. The madness made all things clear. It crept through the mind like the rays of the sun cresting the mountains, and evaporated the mists. It dissolved all accidental forms, pierced all illusions, and laid bare the hearts of men. Odin would give his eye for such madness, Faust gladly bargain his soul to rave with our lunacy.

It's not that there weren't other options. An endless panoply of courtesans of wealth and taste was always present but we, like Sadko, paid them no heed as they passed. What gold could glitter like her flaxen hair? What refinement could compare with she who was mercy itself? We kindled our souls with every trailing ember of her divine spark, and the smoke blinded us to all else.

She is gone now, and we struggle in vain to recollect her name. Perhaps it was religion, or art, or life itself. In any case, all that keeps us alive today is that we once loved her.

Monday, 1 September 2008

A Psychological Critique of Capitalist Economy

Capitalist economy is, in essence, a confluence of two separate but reciprocally interactive psychological disorders. The first, manifested amongst capitalists themselves, is a form of chronic anxiety disorder, while the second, exhibited by large portions of the working class, is technically known as an impulse control disorder.

In the first case, we have the capitalist. Under normal conditions, a rational human being will work to provide the things which they and their family require, and thereby be satisfied. Once a roof is over their head, food is on the table, and a little bit tucked away for entertainment and rainy days, the job is done. The capitalist, however, is not satisfied here. His reaction, when he has secured enough money to satisfy all of his needs, is to use any surplus money that remains to make more money. If someone eats their fill, and then continues to eat without cessation, we say they have an eating disorder. If someone has all the money they need, and then works to make more money, we call them an entrepeneur.

As regards the working class, the derangement is subtler, but equally destructive. Let us start with a familiar example. We have all had experiences with teenagers who think bad things will never happen to them. They can try a drug without becoming addicted; they can drive fast on wet roads without getting into an accident. Fortunately, as they grow, they eventually learn to better assess these kinds of graphic immediate risks. Adulthood does not, sadly, improve the assessment of longer-term or more abstract risks. This was the case in East Germany. Lured by the temptations of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, millions of otherwise rational adult human beings told themselves that when the market economy was implemented that single mother working three jobs to support her family 'won't be me', that factory worker who loses his job and doesn't know where his family's next meal is coming from 'won't be me'. They threw away a system which guaranteed each person a job, a living wage, and a college education for their children (if they passed the exams) in pursuit of 'opportunity'. If a man stakes his house and his children's college fund on a 1 in 100 chance (and those are much better odds than you would ever actually receive) of winning a million dollars, we would say he has a gambling addiction. If a man stakes all that and more on a 1 in a 1000 chance (and those are much better odds than anyone actually received) that the new market economy will make him a wealthy man, he's striking a blow for freedom. The government of East Germany wasn't overthrown, it was lost by 16 million people with a gambling problem.

The behaviours of all participants in a capitalist economy are easily classifiable along the spectrum of recognized (and treatable) behavioural disorders. Yet these individuals receive no help, and are often enabled by those closest to them. It is time that not only OCD sufferers and compulsive gamblers received attention and treatment, but those on the economic right as well. After all, they are people too.